In Niger, a Problem for Parents: How to Feed Their Children

President Obama, to borrow Dr. Martin Luther King's phrase, we are in the "fierce urgency of now." The G8 needs to find the political will to end malnutrition. Pledge to save 15 million children from chronic malnourishment. Don't just say it; do it.
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This piece is part of a series of blogs by leading NGOs to call attention to a range of issues that should be raised at the G8 summit at Camp David in rural Maryland from May 18-19.

Hassia is exhausted.

She's sitting on a mat in the sand. A child is curled up on her lap, two others sleep at her feet. Hassia's worn down. The kids, the stress, the heat, it's all taking a toll on her. She and her family left their village on a donkey cart a month ago and came to Niamey, Niger's capital. The 22-year-old has been squatting in a hut with dozens of other family members, looking for work as a house cleaner, but nobody wants to take her on with three kids in tow.

If only her husband was here. She hasn't heard from him since he left a month ago to find work in neighboring Benin. But so far, he hasn't sent any money back. She sure could use it. One of their twins, Husseini, has a crop of lesions blooming up his legs and back. But that's not her biggest concern.

"Our main worry," she says, "is being hungry."

* * *

A few thousand miles away from the hot sand of Niger sits Camp David. In about a week, under the shade of the hickories and poplar trees, President Obama and world leaders will debate the issues of our time: Syria, Iran, Afghanistan. But there's another issue on the agenda, one that deserves a deeper think: food security. Leaders will talk about growing more food and funding agriculture around the world. These are noble goals. But growing more food isn't enough if kids aren't eating the right things. G8 leaders must commit to a specific nutrition goal to help the malnourished children around the world.

People like Ali are waiting.

Ali is a farmer and a blacksmith in Niger. And he's praying for a miracle. Mother Nature wasn't kind to him last year. He only harvested 150 pounds of grain last year from his millet crop. They've already eaten through it. A few sacks of grain don't last long when you have seven children and a wife.

He's resorted to knocking on doors. "Sometimes, people help," he says, "but now the problem is that even the people who helped us are now looking after their stocks as the food in the market is so expensive."

They would be happy for a steady supply of boullie (boo-EE,) a chalky tasting porridge made from millet powder and cow milk. But cattle are dying and those alive are all ribs and hide and not giving milk. So families are now making the boullie with water. While it keeps the hunger pangs at bay, there's very little nutritional value in it. It can also affect Ali's children long term. Their brains won't develop as they should, which affects everything from their ability to learn to future income potential.

* * *

Hassia and Ali, along with millions of other West Africans, face an overwhelming task: How to feed their kids. It's a question that can tear at the heart of any parent. Out of options, parents compensate by eating less and worrying more. You can see it in the faces of Ali and Hassia and many others across the Sahel. Drought is wreaking havoc in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. In landlocked Niger, to make matters worse, it's the worst place in the world to be a mom, according to Save the Children's Mother's Index.

From birth, women in Niger face a grueling life. Growing up, they are often chronically malnourished. Many are forced to marry young, become pregnant as teenagers, and often work in the fields until the day they go into labor. American women shudder at this life; Hassia has known nothing else.

For moms like Hassia, they can't provide the right food for their children. What happens? The kids eat from the same bowl as their parents, don't get the right nutrients, and chronic malnutrition often sets in. If parents keep this up -- filling their children's stomach with food that doesn't have the right nutrients -- the affect on their child's brain is permanent; it can't be treated.

* * *

Chronically malnourished children need the G8 leaders' help. Globally, malnutrition costs developing countries some $20 to $30 billion per year. Acting now not only saves lives, but saves dollars as well. Simple investments -- teaching mothers about exclusive breastfeeding and hygiene education -- don't cost much and are proven to reduce chronic malnutrition.

And hold the G8 accountable.

Hassia and Ali are counting on you.

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